by Douglas McKinstry
One night in late spring when the light came on he crept from the boxwoods marking the back boundary of the old buzzard’s yard to the trunk of the oak not twenty feet from her window, her bedroom, where he knew she slept alone, the old bird’s room somewhere at the front of the house. He looked around. Nothing but the long abandoned swing set (the old man’s kids had used it—his kids, not hers—they were grown now, almost as old as she herself), a small stone patio with portable barbecue, two vinyl lawn chairs, a rock garden with sundial, a cement angel, two clumps of forsythia, and the moonlit fresh-cut grass he’d mowed two hours before. He’d been camping in back ever since, waiting for the show. His green-stained Reeboks, damp and gnarly, fit his feet like vices.
Imagining behind him a gallery of fans sitting and standing in bleachers, he stepped nervously to the stucco face of the house, just to the left of the window. He looked back at the moon and the milky luster pervading everything beneath it. He hated moon nights, though so far he’d never had trouble: the old man was often out late; the neighborhood was quiet. Yet still he hated them. They made him visible in darkness, and they dimmed the luminosity of Jennifer Dolrock’s overhead bedroom light. But a full moon lasted for days. Much too long to wait.
Always the good sport, he hoisted a thumb for the all-male audience huddled in the stands wishing to a man they had his gumption and nerve. It was like Friday nights in fall, how the guys flashed him thumbs up because he was out there between the hash marks trying to score, and they weren’t.
She was definitely worth the effort. At close range the half-inch chink between curtain and sill might have been a stargate portal: his sixteen-millimeter Nikon had limits, but a naked eye close to the glass saw everything from the door to the chest of drawers at the right. In the middle was the full-length closet mirror where she studied herself, sometimes extravagantly, the sessions ending in a plunge or easy free fall onto the bed at stage left. There she sprawled nude on her tummy, back, or side, running her free hand along one enthralling contour or another. All that wasted glory, he thought. Too much for any insurance manager, loaded or not. So much splendor, wasted, because she could never cheat. Not her. As lovely inside as out. He had the outside memorized so well he saw it while sitting in class, front seat in the row nearest the door, fifteen feet from her desk. He saw it in church sitting by his mom, while the pastor spoke passionately about resisting temptation or offering the olive branch to one’s enemy. He saw it anywhere, anytime he wanted. A photographic memory was a blessing and a curse. He saw it on the football field during games. He saw it as clearly in his head as in reality, perched outside her window in the dark. Sometimes it made him very frustrated, but he figured love was simply that way.
He saw it clearly tonight. Tonight she did the usual thing: lock the door, place her purse atop the chest of drawers, kick off her flats, face the mirror, and strip from top to bottom, methodically, unhurriedly. Tonight, the red v-neck sweater covering the sheer black bra. Both articles old favorites of his, though better tossed than worn. The mid-length gray cotton skirt and silk panties, the dark nylons he’d quietly admired earlier that day, throughout fifth period. She stood for a moment in the nylons only, retreated a step to the edge of the bed, rolled backward, throwing the left foot high above her head. The leg unbending, she peeled the sheer black fabric up and off the toes painted the same red shade as the forgotten v-neck. Then the right shank: hoisted, uncovered, and lowered alongside the left.
Beautiful as always, but more frustrating than usual. Sometimes he fought down the thought that she knew he was there and was taunting him. He didn’t like the thought, and mostly didn’t think it. Yet tonight he ached for something more than mirror stretches or even the bare supine luxuriance six feet removed from secret eyes. He didn’t know what exactly, but after all these nights at the window it had to be more. He didn’t know quite what he wanted, though.
Suddenly, as if to wake him, the bedroom door exploded, throwing shards of yellow pine into a dozen trajectories. Who the hell was this? He couldn’t make out the face, but a big man, six feet plus, had burst into the room. He couldn’t see the face—was it a mask? It was a blur at best. All he saw clearly was a large male body going straight for the nude beauty on the bed, the woman that he, Jim Morris, had worshiped for so long, the woman he’d begun after a fashion to consider his own.
His first thought was to run fast as blazes to his truck parked two blocks away. Instead he remained, frozen, watching through the half-inch chink fitted to his mind’s eye like a retina implant. The intruder, wearing gloves, lifted her, then flung her back to the bed, straddled her, grabbed a pillow tucked beneath the spread, drove it hard against her face and held it there, shouting “Whore! You filthy whore!” repeatedly. For the minute or two that the pillow did its work, all Jim could manage were a few stunned protests, hardly audible even to himself. “No,” he said, mournfully, over and over, moaning it no louder than the summer dove calling from its thicket.
When the intruder, panting, lifted the pillow, Mrs. Dolrock lay still. The intruder sat atop her, gathering his breath. Then he replaced the pillow, tucking it beneath the folded flowered spread. He straightened creases and ruffles, rolled the victim over to smooth the disarray beneath her, then rolled her back. He brushed long brunette strands off her face, picked up her phone and made a call. He hung up the receiver, glanced around the room, walked toward the curtain, to the side where Jim stood peeping.
Jim whirled to his left, flattened his back against the stucco, trying to keep his balance. He shut his eyes tight. The night sky was spinning so fast he thought he’d have to vomit if it didn’t stop. In a moment more sickening than all others, a fleeting moment that already had passed, he’d thought he recognized the face of the killer, and that the killer perhaps had seen him through the chink by the curtain and had known him too. Breathing easier for some minutes, the world slowing to normal, he opened his eyes. The sky was still and peaceful. He moved back to the window. There lay the lifeless body of Jennifer Dolrock. The killer had fled.
Jim slid away from the window, taking a different path from the usual. In two minutes he was back in the truck, shivering, again about to vomit. Now he had the terrible knowledge that, besides watching Jennifer Dolrock get killed, he’d felt relief when her killer had vanished, perhaps never to be captured or identified. He drove home sobbing, for Jennifer’s horrid death, for his own horrid shame. He would be up all night thinking about it.
It was in the paper the next morning, Saturday. Jim sat at the breakfast table reading a small piece in the late-breaking section on page two: “Teacher Found Dead in Bedroom.” Jim had read the piece twenty times already, the last paragraph even more: “The police received an anonymous call, traced to the Dolrock residence. They were met at the house by Herman Dolrock, husband of the deceased, who said he had arrived a few minutes before the police. They are investigating an apparent break-in and homicide. Pending an autopsy, the exact cause of death is unknown.”
“It’s so terrible,” said Jim’s mom, slicing a cantaloupe over the kitchen sink. “I know you liked her, Jimmy.”
“I hardly even knew her,” said Jim, rereading the last lines again.
“You said she was a good teacher, Jim. And she was. Just a beautiful girl. It sounds odd to me. ‘Found nude in her bed by her husband’? Her bedroom door smashed in? I can’t imagine what that’s about. I’ve never met Herman Dolrock, and I’ve never liked him either.”
“Mom, that doesn’t make any sense.” Jim folded the paper, set it by his untouched breakfast plate, and stood up. He left the kitchen without looking at his mom.
“Jim, you didn’t eat your waffles,” she called as he locked his bedroom door.
He got the manila packet from the bottom of his sock drawer. He sat on the edge of his unmade bed, rifling for the thousandth time through a thick stack of photos, all taken on the Nikon he’d bought two years back with money saved from cutting grass.
Any other time he would have stretched out by now, holding pictures with one hand, amusing himself with the other. Today was different. Today he felt sick to his stomach.
He put the pictures back into the envelope, clutched it a minute, opened it again, brought them out a second time. He started through them again, stopping after just a few. He put them away again and placed the envelope inside his backpack. The pictures made him sick. Worse, he felt he had to do something.
He knew what the something was, and for the first few minutes after knowing it he panicked, pacing the room, stopping every half minute to look at his face in the mirror, to look at the ironic failure he was.
The star quarterback was supposed to go steady with the captain of the cheerleaders, not photograph his English teacher at night through her bedroom window. Or was that just crap he’d seen in movies? Maybe not, but it didn’t matter. The trouble was he didn’t look like any of those Hollywood muffins that only pretended to play ball for the camera.
The nose, bulbous as a broccoli head, was enough to scare off any cheerleader with working eyeballs. A nerd girl in Biology had told him once his blue eyes were pretty. He didn’t believe her when she’d said it; he didn’t believe it now. They were blue all right, but always squinting, his eyelids perpetually at half-mast. The mud brown hair was okay, what there was of it. Male-pattern baldness was bad enough on an eleventh-grade Adonis; on this mug it was outright sin. He figured it was a conspiracy of aesthetic flaws that had kept him forever awkward, except on the gridiron and in the classroom, in both of which arenas he had more than excelled—he had compensated.
If running and passing a pigskin didn’t win him a scholarship, his grade-point average and college entrance scores would. Either avenue was open to him—or had been: a big-time football conference or the academic stratosphere of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Duke. Either path had been available, until now, now that Jennifer Dolrock lay in the police morgue, and he, the lone peeping witness to her murder, sat quietly in his bedroom.
He thought of the long year to go before graduating. It would be tough at any rate, but all the more with a voyeur’s rap sheet. Maybe the schools he aimed for wouldn’t find out. He didn’t see how they wouldn’t, but he didn’t know. What he did know for sure was the additional celebrity he’d have at the local level at least. Jim Morris, the quarterback-nerd logging extracurricular research outside his teacher’s bedroom window. Too geeky to date a pretty girl, but hellbound to watch one anyway.
He backed away from the mirror and hoisted his pack from the floor. Gazing at Jennifer Dolrock’s nude body through the little chink inside his head, he passed his mom on the way out the kitchen door.
“Jim, will you be here for supper?” she asked. Jim said he didn’t know.
In a gravel parking lot by the lake he took another look at the photos. He separated a few fully clothed shots, thinking to keep them as decent keepsakes of a woman he knew he still loved. In a moment more he had put them back with the others, bitterly acknowledging the obscenity of every ill-gotten memento he’d acquired.
Outside his truck, over a garbage receptacle, he burned every picture, one at a time, to black ashes. Then he burned the manila envelope that had held them for most of a year. He climbed back into the truck and headed west on the turnpike.
First he stopped in the restroom. A cop on his way out glanced at him in the background of the mirror. He studied himself again, somewhat in the fashion she had studied the mirror so many nights there alone in her room. Wanting to be sure of herself, he supposed. Wanting to love herself, or to be loved.
He wondered if he could ever love himself, the way all the self-help books said to do. It seemed like a lot to ask, somehow. Considering how easy it was to do stupid things.
He rubbed his right shoulder. It was sore as hell. Raising the torn sleeve of his tee shirt, he saw a bruise the size of a softball. With his index finger and thumb he plucked several half-embedded splinters of yellow wood from the contrasting blue background of the wound, ignoring smaller fragments still lodged beneath the skin. What the hell, he thought; then, thinking nothing more, he flicked the splinters into the lavatory basin and washed them down, all the while watching Jennifer Dolrock through the narrow portal in his head.
Walking down the hall toward the double doors, he put the situation in the best light he could. He would suffer for it, no doubt. Peeping Jim, they would say, or worse. He didn’t relish the idea, but it had to be done. Not just for a dead lady he still loved. For himself too, that he might start loving himself as well.
At the end of the hallway he paused a moment, wondering, suddenly, if they might suspect him of the murder. If they couldn’t find the guy, and he wondered how they could, they might arrest the eye-witness instead. Stranger things had happened. It would certainly make an ironic conclusion to the sacrifice he was making. The thought half scared, half angered him, but he couldn’t back out now. There was too much at stake. He opened the double doors and approached the officer at the main desk.